Born in Hartford, Connecticut and raised by his father, unable to attend Yale College because his eyesight had weakened due to sumac poisoning, Frederick Law Olmsted sailed off to China where he returned a year later with scurvy.  After recovering, he set out his hand at farming on Staten Island, failing miserably to profit from his land holdings.  Next he embarked for England and Wales with his brother whereupon they encountered magnificent estates, parks and rural scenery.  Such was the indication of things to come.  Most influential in his journeys were Joseph Paxton’s design for Birkenhead.

Paxton sought to bring the grandeur of the aristocratic garden to the working people of Birkenhead. The park was a declaration of civic pride to nearby Liverpool and an attempt to tempt wealthy taxpayers to either build or purchase homes in Birkenhead. It is widely believed to be the first civic park in Britain, but more importantly within this context it provide the inspiration and template for Olmsted (and Calvert Vaux's) work.  Olmsted wrote "

"five minutes of admiration, and a few more spent studying the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty, and I was ready to admit that in democratic America there was nothing to be thought of as comparable with this People’s Garden"."

 Illustration and photograph of  Birkenhead Park (youyesterday.com/flicker.com)

“Olmsted was much impressed with the meandering footpaths and open meadows spangled with rocks and scattered trees. He wondered how cleverly "art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty." And wonder of wonders, this was not just a sanctum for some noble lord but a park open to the public, a park for people of all stations in life. In all the cities of democratic America, he had to admit, there was nothing quite like it. Not yet, anyway.” National Geographic Magazine, March 2005.

Illustration of Central Park/Bethesda Terrace and fountain


Much has been written on Olmsted’s intriguing life, including the most recent bestseller “A Clearing in the Distance”by Witold Rybczynski.  Thanks to the efforts of the Olmsted Legacy a film that was initially screened last year at select locations will now be coming to public television.

The Olmsted Legacy, with its name slightly tweaked to "Olmsted and America's Urban Parks" was aired appropriately on PBS for Earth Day, April 20th.



As you enter the Conservatory Garden at 105th and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, NYC, through the Vanderbilt gates, the view you behold is of the Italian Garden.  At the center of this spectacular view is a vast lawn bordered by clipped yews, a central fountain and tiered hedges incorporated into the natural hillside.  Directly adjacent to the lawn on both the north and south sides, flanking the yews that border the lawn are two luxurious allées of crabapples. 

An allée was a feature of the French formal garden (circa 1700’s). It is a walkway lined with trees or tall shrubs, sometimes considered a promenade or an extension of a view. It either ended in a terminal feature or seemingly continued to oblivion. However, it’s origin may be found in ancient Roman landscapes as it was commonplace to build a road or promenade lined on both sides with trees.

The crabapples in the Conservatory Garden flanking the lawn usually reach their peak bloom in late April, but due to the early warm weather, the blooms were forced this past week.  One side is pink, the other white. These mature crabapples were transported down the Hudson River on barges for the original opening of the garden in 1937, rather than the renovation done in the mid eighties by Lynden Miller.

These mature crabapples have magnificent structure, their vase shape creates not only an allee, but also a canopy, a false ceiling as you walk or sit underneath it. The allée is dreamy, restful and engaging… and for a week when the crabapples are in bloom, the petals gently drop, dancing their way down, as snowflakes, down upon the yews and bluestone paving below… dappled spots of sunlight filter through the canopy and rest on the groundplane…an enchanting vision all told.  The nearby lilacs (also early in their bloom) in the adjoined English garden have added to this sensory delight and perfumed the air.

A magnificent garden, a “dessert” for the senses anytime of year that you visit. This is a public garden, which attracts visitors of all ages, in the tradition of the great European public spaces.


The definitive crown jewel of Central Park, is one of the most famous and universally loved fountains in the world, Bethesda Fountain. Designed by Emma Stebbins, the centerpiece of the "Angel of the Waters" was the only sculpture commissioned as part of the original design of the Park naming her the first woman to receive a commission for a major work of art in New York City.

Born and raised in a wealthy New York family, Stebbins was encouraged by her family in her pursuit of art from an early age. She moved to Rome where she studied under John Gibson an English neoclassicist working there at that time.

While living and studying in Rome she fell in love with actress Charlotte Saunders Cushman, and quickly became involved in the bohemian and feminist lesbian lifestyle, which was more tolerated there than it would have been back in New York.

According to Central Park historian Sara Cedar Miller, Stebbins received the commission for the sculpture as a result of influence from her brother. Henry, who at the time was president of the Central Park Board of Commissioners. Henry's motivation, Miller believes, may have been an unsuccessful attempt to induce her to return to New York and break up with Cushman, a relationship that to Henry was a source of embarrassing gossip in New York.
Cushman was confidant, strong, and charismatic, and recently recovering from a break up following a ten-year relationship with the actress Matilda Hays. Following the death of Cushman, Stebbins never produced another sculpture. Stebbins died in New York in 1882, at the age of 67

Located on the lower level of Bethesda Terrace, this neoclassical winged female figure symbolizes and celebrates the purifying of the city’s water supply when the Croton Aqueduct opened in 1842 bringing fresh water to all New Yorkers. For this reason she carries a lily, the symbol of purity in one hand while her other hand extends outward as she blesses the water below. The stimulus for the idea of the "Angel of the Waters" comes from the Gospel of Saint John, Chapter 5, the story of an angel bestowing healing powers on the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. Beneath the eight-foot gilded bronze statue are four smaller four-foot figures symbolizing Temperance, Purity, Health, and Peace. The base of the fountain was designed by Calvert Vaux with detail work by Jacob Wrey Mould.  Central Park, as many people are aware of, was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

Emma Stebbins was also part of the impetus to educate women at Columbia University -- thereby resulting in the formation of Barnard College.

If you haven’t seen it.. go visit.  I’m told this is the most visited spot in all of Manhattan by tourists.  Otherwise watch a video, where the Angel has a supporting role.
(This post is inspired by yesterday’s discussion with another passionate New Yorker.)